For someone who can’t stand the spotlight, standup comedian Kathleen Madigan picked one hell of a career.
“If I hear somebody go ‘Kathleen!’ my immediate reaction is defensive and aggressive,” she quipped. “(Growing up) if you heard your name called, it was never good. It was like, ‘Somebody broke this lamp and your brother said it was you.’ ”
These days, Madigan may find it increasingly difficult to avoid attention.
Her latest comedy special, “Madigan Again,” premiered in September on Netflix, earning her an American Comedy Award nomination for best concert comic. She counts Lewis Black and Ron White among her admirers. And she’s currently racking up tour dates across the country.
Madigan, 49, grew up in the St. Louis suburb of Florissant, Mo., as part of a large, sarcastic Irish-American clan.
She and her six siblings spent much of their childhoods blissfully unsupervised by their father, a worker’s compensation lawyer, and mother, a nurse turned stay-at-home mom.
“Half the time, my mother didn’t even know where we were,” Madigan recalled. “That was fine with me. … I didn’t even want attention. I loved the lack of focus.”
Madigan worked as a bartender, waitress and newspaper reporter before trying her hand at standup comedy — cutting her teeth at open mic nights across the St. Louis area.
Money was a key motivator, she said.
“Honestly. I found out you could make 250 bucks if you had 10 minutes (of material) and could be an opening act,” said Madigan, who holds a journalism degree from Southern Illinois University. “A real job never appealed to me. I didn’t like the whole nine-to-five (thing). I just hated it.”
Comedy, in contrast, “comes easy to me,” she added.
Over the past 25 years, Madigan has released four albums, appeared as a finalist and judge on NBC’s “Last Comic Standing,” and entertained U.S. troops in Iraq and Afghanistan with Lewis Black and the late Robin Williams.
The comedian has also starred in specials on Comedy Central, CMT, HBO and Showtime, including 2013’s “Gone Madigan.” (She’s filming another special this October in Milwaukee. “It’s a great crowd and (there’s) beer and bratwurst and everything,” she explains.)
In addition, Madigan is a prolific presence on Twitter, where she can be found rooting for the St. Louis Rams, marveling at plummeting gas prices and live-tweeting episodes of HGTV’s “House Hunters.” (“I think the whole country’s watching ‘House Hunters,’ and that’s why we’re not getting as much done as other countries,” the comedian quipped.) Madigan, who was raised Roman Catholic, also keeps up with Pope Francis.
“The new pope has a lot of things going on,” she said. “In one day, he appointed 40 new exorcists — I didn’t even know we had job openings — and said dogs go to heaven.”
The same topics habitually crop up in her stage act, along with wry observations about drinking, dating and going to the gym.
“I stay away from anything that’s extremely controversial,” she said.
“I’m not here to challenge you. I’m not here to change your mind. I’m not here to preach,” she said. “I’m like the movie ‘Arthur.’ You’ll have a nice time but it won’t change your life.”
Even so, the comedian, who grew up just three miles from Ferguson, Mo., has plenty to say on the subject of the recent police killing of unarmed black teen Michael Brown. “That did hit a nerve,” she said.
“I could have told you this was going to happen 25 years ago,” Madigan added. “The whole tide was turning. The cops were getting bad. I was afraid of them — and I was white … and the daughter of a lawyer.”
She described telling her father, “I’m not sure my high school is very safe anymore. A girl got stabbed and murdered in the third floor bathroom.” “And my dad goes, ‘Well, don’t use that bathroom,’ ” she recalled. “ ‘OK, I think you’re missing the big point.’ ”
In general, Madigan said, she approaches standup in the same manner she’d approach a “bar conversation with a stranger.”
“(It’s) a friendly conversation, and nothing too crazy,” she said.